It would seem a Western fog hangs over the state of Chinese antimony reserves and resources, and other potential domestic sources that might continue to feed its smelters in the coming years. Alas, like any metal-minded citizen might, I have been looking for a firm forecast on the impact of what has been reported by various sources as the end to high grade antimony ore in the Xikuangshan mine in Lengshuijiang, Hunan Province, China. I haven't got one.
Let me be abundantly clear. I am not hinting or suggesting at an impending collapse of domestic supply of antimony in China. What I am trying to gauge is the basis and implication of what is widely reported to be the coming exhaustion of the Xikuangshan antimony deposit in Lengshuijiang, China, that is, without having to resort to exaggeration, the world's most important source of antimony, which is chiefly used as a flame retardant.
Here is what the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently said about this ore exhaustion in its 2012 overview of antimony. "The local Government in Lengshuijiang, Hunan Province, which accounts for about 60% of the world antimony supply, shuttered almost all of its mines and smelters. Also, officials in Lengshuijiang announced that after more than 110 years of continuous mining, the area now had only five years of mining life left." Likewise, Roskill, a metals and mining consulting firm, noted in its overview of the antimony market this year that "Reserves of high-grade Sb (antimony) ore in Lengshuijiang, in Hunan province, are reported to be near exhaustion."
Such reports that the best of China's antimony ore faces a brick wall have bred shrill claims by some commentators. A SeekingAlpha contributor, who drew his conclusion from the USGS data, wrote, "China's biggest supplier of Antimony, after 110 years of mining is running out of antimony. They have five years left! Sixty percent of the world's supply will disappear."
It's a spurious claim, of course. If it's not exactly clear what the implication for resulting ore grades is, that Chinese miners may come to the last high-grade antimony stope in the Xikuangshan mine in the next half-decade does not translate to the implosion of domestic Chinese antimony supply. Experts aren't saying so (more on that in a moment.)
But O! The fog! I am after details that don't seem to exist from Western sources in English on the tenor of antimony ore left in China assuming Xikuangshan's last gasp comes in four years or so, itself a thorny fact to check and parse. I turned to two sources as expert on Chinese antimony outside of China as it comes. Both, unfortunately, asked me not to publish their names so you'll have to trust me they know a fair bit about Chinese antimony. For the sake of reporting ease, I'll call them Source A and Source B.
Reached by phone, Source A reiterated the high-grade ore situation in Lengshuijiang. "Ask anyone in the area, and they'll tell you they expect it to be exhausted in four years." But pressed for details on what that means for sources of antimony in Lengshuijiang and beyond in China—e.g., what tonnage and grades will be left?—Source A, (as did Source B) acknowledged he did not have such numbers. He noted the bare facts that have been reported about antimony reserves in China. That, according to Roskill, in 2009 the Chinese government reported 2.46 million tonnes in contained antimony reserves, and that back in early 2010 it added some 289,000 more tonnes in antimony, likely from Tibet, to the count. To put those numbers in perspective, total annual mine production of contained antimony in the world was 169,000 tonnes in 2011, per the USGS.
Neither did the other source, who I'm calling Source B, have more specific numbers on the fate of Chinese reserves, grade- or tonnage-wise. Indeed both sources expressed a desire for better data. Which, really, leaves us where we started, that Xikuangshan high-grade antimony ore, of unspecified grade, is reportedly set to run out in four years time. I couldn't get beyond that in detail.
The best picture I can draw from Source B and Source A's comments as far as overall domestic mine supply of antimony in China in the coming years is the logical one anyway: that with higher grade ore running out, grades (whatever they may be) from Chinese antimony sources will continue to decline. I repeat: declining grades. As in cases where hobos and evangelicals make wild predictions about a coming scourge liable to wipe out humanity tomorrow, reality is not quite so sensational. The end of Chinese antimony mining is not nigh. Rather, in the absence of major antimony discoveries in the Middle Kingdom, ever diminishing grades will be the norm.
On the home front, Source A noted antimony ore was increasingly coming from Guangxi and a few other states. Source B also said he expected mining at Xikuangshan would continue, having faith exploration beneath existing workings would turn up more high-grade ore. "There is a lot of potential in that area," he said. Further, Source B said, since the Chinese have been high-grading Xikuangshan, there was still lower-grade ore left to mine.
Just don't ask how much.
Outside its borders, as Source A and Source B both pointed out, the declining grades will continue to mean that China increasingly turns to foreign antimony ore of higher grade to supplement domestic stock. Case in point, as Source A noted, was China Minmetal's purchase of the Beaver Brook antimony mine in Newfoundland, Canada, a few years back. Further, he and Source B highlighted new and old mines in Russia and Australia that are expected to soon come online.
All this still leaves antimonious frustrations: that the Chinese don't say how much of its reserves are higher and lower grade, or just what they means by higher and lower grade for that matter. And beyond reserves, what kind of resources does China hold? Drop me a line if you have the hard numbers.